Of all idioms, food-related and otherwise, “Cream of the Crop” is among the most readily understood across cultures. Of all idioms, it is one of the few that has an equivalent in several other languages. Agriculture is at the root of this expression. The meaning is clear: “the best of the best.” The French version is closer to this meaning. It is, “La crème de la crème.”
Another unique aspect of this expression is that the object to which it refers may be a person, a thing or even an institution, as when we refer to a college as being the cream of the crop to highlight the remarkable quality of the education it provides. A car may be the cream of the crop of models and performance. And a person is the cream of the crop when they have attained mastery in their area of expertise, or when they are deemed to be an exceptionally good human being.
Initially, however, the cream of the crop most likely referred to the harvest in general and to dairy farming in particular. This may explain why there is such a cross-cultural agreement as to the meaning of the phrase. It may have emerged naturally in the context of trade and commerce, when for instance one farmer would have referred to his produce as being the cream of the crop, knowing that his customer would readily understand the reference to the riches part of milk in dairy production. The cream always rises to the top, after all. Everybody would have known that. The imagery just fit, naturally.
Placing in the context of time, however, we find most early references occur in the 17th century. This is thought to be the first time the word “cream” was used figuratively to mean “best.” Agriculture dates back around 12,000 years. The printing press was invented in the 15th century. It seems reasonable to conclude that the expression, or a close variation, may have been in usage long before this, but we can only trace it to its earliest known appearance in print. The French are said to have brought their version, la crème de la crème, into everyday culture by the 19th century.
The majority of modern-day humans are no longer directly involved with agriculture, yet we all accept the full meaning of the expression without so much as an inquisitive frown. Furthermore, all of us still us it. Linguists point to the very structure and rhythm of the phrase as the reason for this. In other words, it is the perfect tag line and we remember tag lines. “The cream of the harvest” just does not have the same bite.
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